Super Cool Mayan Ruin 90 Minutes from the Riviera Maya – Naranjal Ruins

We are back to our off the beaten track exploring and man, we are having a blast. We are once again weaving through small pueblos, finding interesting road side places to eat, and quite frankly having the time of our lives.

Our latest adventure took us to the archaeological site of Naranjal, an unexcavated Mayan ruin found by local Chicleros in the early 1900’s. Now this really is a Mayan ‘Ruin’. INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) has not found the funding to start exposing this ancient city but we find its  natural state to be more interesting than some of the excavated settlements.

If you decided to visit Naranjal, you will be trekking through the jungle looking at large mounds that show glimpses of exposed walls. You will be climbing large heaps of camouflaged buildings that overlook the jungle and let you only imagine what lies beneath the jungle.

This is a true adventure from the moment you start this journey right through to when you return to your Riviera Maya home away from home.

Little Known History of Naranjal Ruins

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Without the expertise of archaeologists, little is known about the original Mayan settlement. What we do know is this:

The exposed structures are similar in style to the megalithic style found at Ake Ruins. This could, and we only say could as we have no way of proving this, place this settlement to 300 AD. The megalithic style was a pre-classic building style that used large square blocks to build settlements.

That said, some of the corners of the exposed buildings made us think of Uxmal, the rounded corners that seem to define part of the Puuc architecture. We hesitate to say it is more Puuc than Megalithic as the tops of the buildings are not exposed. The Puuc tradition is defined by the ornate designs found at the top of buildings. We just could not see anything on the top of the structures that would point towards this style but we are curious about the rounded corners, very curious.

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The site is 2 square kilometers, though you will not be walking the entire site. There are 50 identified structures but only 10 of these structures are slight exposed for visitors to see. Nothing has been excavated on the site, yet.

Our guide did fill us in on how the local community came to settle in this location and how this archaeological site obtained its name. Chicleros found the Mayan city in the early 1900’s, a familiar story that surrounds so many local archaeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula. The rolling hills and wild citrus orchards drew families of the Chicleros to this region.

Naranjal, the village and Mayan ruins, was named after the orange grove. Our guides grandfather was part of the first settlers to the area (and was a chichlero, as was his father). He is now the gatekeeper of the archeological site, and if you speak Spanish, he is a great guide. He is well versed in local history, knows his indigenous plants better than anyone I have ever met, and has a lovely family who also helps him out.

What to Expect from the Naranjal Ruins

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Expect to tip your guide when you go into the ruins. I would not try and navigate this site by yourself. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, your guide will walk you through the site and lead you back out again. He will take you to the top of the unexcavated mounds, he will point out important and fascinating plants that require no explanation. The most fascinating find was the Mimosa Pudica plant, other wise known in English as the ‘Shy Plant’ or the ‘Touch Me Not’ plant. This Central American plant is from the pea family. When touched, the leaves retract/close.

Expect glimpses of the buildings not an excavated city with trilingual signs, clear paths and a site map. This is a ruin in the rough. This site is for the visitor who wants to see, understand, and be immersed in a Mayan settlement that has deserted and left to the elements. This site takes you back to the times of Catherwood and Stephens, two of the most influential explorers who helped to identify so many of the excavated Mayan settlements found in the area.

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Expect more than just a small unexcavated settlement. In the city center you will see a map of the local attractions. A cenote, the ruins, a honey store, a small plant store, local women selling their needlpoint, and a small community museum.

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The museum has three glass cases with artifacts found throughout the village. Mayan drinking vessels, plates, arrowheads, and broken clay pieces. Nothing is archived, nothing has an explanation. The museum is locked and your guide will open it for you at your request. I was fascinated by what we saw, so make sure you go in, even though it is tiny!

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We did purchase some great local plants from our guide’s wife, which I will say are thriving in our garden. I wish I had brought more money for their needle point. This beats the mass produced machine made pillows that you now find all over the Riviera Maya. These pieces are the real deal! They are worth buying and framing.

Like other visitors we were unable to enter the cenote that day. Seems the generator is always on the blink. It delivers necessary light for you to enter the cenote and see the formations. We also missed the honey store that day as well.

How to Get There – Directions to the Naranjal Ruins

naranjal ruins

We had the directions from a friend of a friend. They were not that great. After asking villagers in Ignacio Zaragoza, we were able to figure it out! The key to finding Naranjal is the store Los Arcos located in Iganacio Zaragoza. Below is a map and also some clear directions.

Red circle -town of Ignacio Zaragoza – Key city to finding the town of Naranjal
Blue arrow – Toll road from Playa del Carmen
Black Arrow – The store ‘Los Arcos’ a green building that is the turn off to the village of Naranjal

The directions are as follows: Take the toll road from Playa del Carmen to the Merida Cuota and Isla Holbox. When you reach the end of the road, take the turn off for Isla Holbox and the Merida Libre (hwy 180 that is not a toll road). Go west on the Merida Libre until you reach the village of Ignacio Zaragoza, which is not that small by the way.

naranhal ruins los arcos

Look for a green store on the left hand side of the road called ‘Los Arcos Importaciones’. This is the biggest store on the highway that has a facade made of arches. You will also see the village sport complex with the steel roof as well. Turn left at Los Arcos onto the paved road. Follow the paved road to the village square of Narajal. Now clear signs can be seen. Follow the signs for the archaeological site.

If for any reason the sign for the ruins is not there, turn left as soon as you reach the town square. Follow the small hilly road to the residential part of the city. Here you will see a sign for the archaeological site. Kiddy corner across the green space is a new small (really small) cement building and the pink community museum.

This is where you can park your car and find your guide. Note, if the guide is not in the small building, any village person will go and find the guide.

INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) has not listed this Mayan site on their webpage, so you know you are off the beaten path! We felt safe and welcomed in the small village of Naranjal and would not recommend this day trip if we thought differently.

Total trip time from the Riviera Maya including a road side lunch was 4 hours.

We want to thank our friend and traveling buddy Don Pattie for the photos!

If an off the beaten path road trip is not your idea of a vacation, check out our local guide to Chichen Itza that has three ways to see this Wonder of the World – DIY road trip, travel with friends or hook yourself up with a local guide.


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